VENICE, La/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said he wanted to know “whose ass to kick” over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, adding to the pressure on energy giant BP Plc as it sought to capture more of the leak from its gushing well.
In an interview with NBC News’ “Today” aired on Tuesday, Obama also said that if BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward worked for him, he would have fired him by now over his response to the 50-day-old spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It was triggered by an April 20 well blowout and rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
The U.S. president, who himself faces growing criticism that his administration was slow to react to the economic and ecological catastrophe hitting four U.S. Gulf states, said he did not want to prejudge the investigation into the incident.
“But the initial reports indicate there may be situations in which not only human error was involved, but you also saw some corner cutting in terms of safety,” Obama said in some of his angriest public words yet about the catastrophe.
Hayward says a “series of failures” led to the accident but denies these resulted from BP efforts to save costs.
Responding to critics who say his response to the spill should be more engaged and forceful, Obama said: “I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf.”
“And I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar; we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick,” he added.
In London, BP’s share price was down more than 2 percent after Obama’s remarks. BP shares have lost about a third of their value since the crisis erupted, and the company suffered another blow when Goldman Sachs downgraded its rating on BP to “neutral” from “buy” this week.
The stakes are high for Obama too.
A Washington Post/ABC poll found that 69 percent of Americans believe the government had done a “not so good” or “poor” job handling the spill. Just over 1,000 people were surveyed in the poll, conducted between June 3 and 6.
The spill has affected 120 miles of coastline, fouling wildlife refuges in Louisiana and barrier islands in Mississippi and Alabama and also sending tar balls ashore on northwest beaches of Florida, where the $60 billion-a-year tourism industry accounts for nearly 1 million jobs.
The Obama administration has imposed a six-month moratorium on new drilling permits for exploration and development wells in waters deeper than 500 feet. But the U.S. Interior Department may issue new safety and environmental requirements as soon as Tuesday for companies that want to drill in shallow waters.
The Gulf of Mexico incident has also started to have international ramifications.
Britain said it would increase its inspection of North Sea drilling rigs and monitoring of offshore practices in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill.
The International Energy Agency said it may cut its oil output estimates for the Gulf of Mexico by up to 300,000 barrels a day for 2015 on potentially tighter U.S. laws on deepwater drilling after the BP well accident.
While a complete halt to the flow of oil is not expected until August at the earliest, BP has reported an increase in the amount of oil it is capturing from the well in its latest containment effort.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who leads the government’s relief effort, said on Monday that London-based BP hoped to collect 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons/3.18 million liters) per day in its latest effort.
BP said it had collected 7,541 barrels of oil in the first 12 hours of Monday. If it collected the same amount the rest of the day, the total for Monday would be more than 15,000 barrels, about 35 percent higher than the amount collected on Sunday.
Neither Allen nor BP gave an estimate of how much oil is still flowing into the Gulf. BP’s latest attempt involves placing a containment cap on top of the gushing pipe on the ocean floor.
Away from the action in the Gulf, the political heat remains intense in Washington with yet another congressional hearing set to bring BP and its peers under renewed scrutiny.
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing at 10:00 EDT (1400 GMT) on Tuesday titled: “The Risky Business of Big Oil: Have Recent Court Decisions and Liability Caps Encouraged Irresponsible Corporate Behavior?” Democrats in Congress have been looking at lifting such caps.
The Senate hearing follows one in Chalmette, Louisiana, where two women who lost their husbands in the explosion that unleashed the crisis urged members of Congress to hold BP accountable.
“I am asking you to please consider harsh punishments on companies who choose to ignore safety standards before other families are destroyed,” said Courtney Kemp, whose husband, Wyatt, was killed in the explosion.
The gravity of the spill was spelled out by Admiral Allen, who said its environmental consequences could last for years.
“Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months” once the well is plugged, he said. “Long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats ... will be years.”
Images of birds struggling through oil-soaked waters ringing Louisiana’s ecologically fragile barrier islands and marshes have added to the public outcry and pressure on Obama.
One-third of the Gulf’s federal waters, or 78,000 square miles (200,000 square km), remains closed to fishing, and the toll of dead and injured birds and marine animals is climbing.
Additional reporting by Tom Bergin in London, Jennifer Tan in Kuala Lumpur, and Tom Doggett in Washington; writing by Ed Stoddard and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham